BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Chris Christie knows he’s going to be re-elected as New Jersey’s governor when the state votes on Tuesday in the US.
At this point, on a crisp Saturday morning in northern New Jersey that serves as the starting point for Day 4 of a seven-day bus tour, he’s trying to run up the score against Democrat Barbara Buono. He wants to win big. He wants a Republican legislature — or at least says he does. And he wants to send a message to America.
“The entire country is watching Tuesday night,” Christie tells a crowd of about 75 to 100 supporters here who showed up at 9a.m. to hear him speak. “And if we do our job, what they’re going to see is not what’s been a typical election in America the past few years, where everybody runs to their separate quarters. …
“They’re going to see folks from the cities, they’re going to see folks from the suburbs, and folks from farms coming together to vote for the same person. They’re going to see young people and senior citizens coming together to vote for the same person. They’re going to see African-Americans and Hispanics voting for the same person as Caucasians in the suburbs. They’re going to see us bring our state together like it’s never been brought together before.
“And New Jersey is going to set the example for the direction the rest of the United States needs to take if we’re going to make this country great again.”
Bridgewater is the first stop of seven on the day for Christie. It’s also the first of at least three during which he tells the story of Gladys, an 82-year-old African-American woman from Newark.
New Jersey is perhaps the only place in the country where a candidate running for its highest office can use the word “shit” in a stump speech. But Gladys embodies everything in a New Jerseyan that Chris Christie wants to promote.
She’s 82, an African-American, and has lived in Newark her entire life — not exactly the type of voter who normally votes Republican. She didn’t vote for him last time, but will this time. Why? Because of the way he has handled crisis — particularly the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
But what really gets the crowd going is the punchline Christie tells of the time he met Gladys four weeks ago at a senior wellness event in West Orange, N.J. Christie relays that Gladys told him that she has prayed for him every night since Sandy left New Jersey devastated.
And then Gladys saw him on television again, in September, in front of another disaster. A fire sparked by wiring damaged in Sandy engulfed the town of Seaside Park, destroying businesses and parts of the newly rebuilt boardwalk.
Gladys said a special prayer for Christie that night.
“Lord, please give our governor strength,” Gladys said, according to Christie. “Because I don’t know how much more shit this boy can take.”
Christie marvels at a well-dressed, proper older woman using the words “lord” and “shit” in the same sentence. When Govs. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Scott Walker (R-Wis.) called him recently, he told them that story.
“These are my people!” he says.
Christie takes a lot of flack on the right for how he handled Sandy, embracing President Barack Obama in the last week of a heated election. They argue that it gave Obama a bipartisan “moment” at a time when Mitt Romney was gaining momentum. But for Christie, Sandy has been the basis of his re-election campaign.
“It’s the same way he’s gone about his business as governor — he’s governor, and he’s not trying to hide from the issues,” Jeff Chiesa, who Christie appointed to be a U.S. senator after the death of Frank Lautenberg earlier this year, told Business Insider on Saturday.
“He makes decisions that makes New Jersey better. It’s why he has so much support right now. And Sandy, when he had the opportunity to have the President’s ear when New Jersey needed the resources, the President listened, the President respected him, and he got us the money. And without it, we’d be in an enormous hole. What we have, we have because of him.”
After rallying with tailgaters before the Rutgers University football game on Saturday morning, Christie’s next stop, just after noon, is at a diner in the suburban town of Old Bridge, N.J.
This would be Christie’s longest trip of the day. A crowd of about 30 to 40 people lines up outside the diner for his bus’ arrival. He greets them, and then he makes his way inside to greet patrons.
Here is another example of the unique Christie coalition on display. Shaking hands with supporters along the line, he comes up to Chris Porter, an independent recording artist and music producer in his mid-20s. Christie tells Porter that he wishes he could pull off his hairdo — the word “PLEDGE” is shaved into his head, a reference to a recently begun Kickstarter campaign.
“I’d go anywhere for Gov. Christie,” Porter says.
The reasons are the same as the theme that will build up throughout the day. Christie is strong, he leads, and he “doesn’t B.S.”
He also has a certain sense of accessibility. At one point outside, Ward Biondi, who is blind, approaches Christie. He is a lector at the nearby St. Ambrose Catholic church. But he has been crossing a six-lane intersection by only listening to the flow of traffic — he needs an audible traffic signal.
Christie tells him that he’ll have Transportation Secretary James Simpson call him on Monday.
“You just need someone to take charge,” Biondi says. “All of these local officials go back and forth saying it’s not their job. He made it his job.”
Bachstadt’s Tavern, a hole-in-the-wall in Keansburg, N.J., there is a sign that foreshadows what everybody here thinks is inevitable:
“CHRIS CHRISTIE FOR PRESIDENT IN 2016.“
Keansburg — and Monmouth County, in general — are special for Christie. It’s where he says he first realised that he was probably going to be elected as governor, when he beat Democrat Jon Corzine by a 2-to-1 margin in the county.
And it’s a place that has faced some of the brunt of the natural disasters of Christie’s first term.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges. We’ve had a lot of things that have knocked us down, and we’ve gotten back up,” Christie tells a crowd in the bar. “And we have a lot of families that still need to be lifted up.
“Here’s what I want you to know today: No matter what obstacle they put in front of me — no matter what political challenge they put in front of us — there is nothing that will get between me and the mission to completely restore the Jersey Shore from Sandy.”
That promise is not good enough for Kathleen Steakin, who walks up to Christie as he is shaking hands after the event. Her home was destroyed by Sandy. She is living in a trailer on Lincoln Ave., a few blocks up, and she “just wants to go home.” Her trailer is on the opposite side of the street.
The aftermath of Sandy has divided her family — two of her children have been forced to move away because there is no room on Lincoln Avenue. It has also forced complications in her medical condition. She has Bell’s Palsy, a form of facial paralysis, and she has struggled over the past year to get the necessary treatment.
When she tells Christie her story, she bursts into tears. He hugs her while she sobs, her face buried in him. He gives her Chief of Staff Kevin O’Toole’s business card, along with a personal number.
For Steakin, this also isn’t good enough. But it’s hope.
“I wasn’t expecting him to do that,” Steakin said. “I hope he’s for real. He seems real.”
It’s now about 4 p.m., and Chris Christie has gotten combative. At a VFW in Somers Point, N.J., he says that Democratic opponent Barbara Buono’s campaign has been “fuelled by anger.” With a Republican state senator challenger by his side, he said in incumbent Sen. Jim Whalen (D-Atlantic) is an “animal.”
But Christie saves the most heated confrontation for last, right when he is about to get back on the bus for the last two stops of the day.
The challenge comes in the form of a Melissa Tomlinson, a special education teacher at Buena Regional Middle School, who asks him a question: “Why are you portraying our schools as failure factories?”
“What do you want?” Christie asked.
In a subsequent phone interview, Tomlinson said she told Christie she wanted to start a conversation about education-funding levels. In Christie’s first year in office, $1.3 billion was cut from education, something Christie has maintained as necessary to balance the budget.
More money will “never be enough,” Christie told her. Before boarding the bus, he told her to “do her job,” something that resonated with the crowd that subsequently cheered him on.
It’s a long way to 2016. And Tomlinson, like some others, think that when the dust of Sandy settles, other divisive issues that marked his first term will start to pop up again — like education reform, like property taxes, like gun control.
Then again, others appreciate Christie for what they see as working past party lines to enact reform.
Even with Christie’s cuts, New Jersey ranks third in the nation in spending per pupil, according to 2012-13 figures released by the National Education Association. The average of $US19,291 it spends on each pupil is 74% more than the national average.
Rita Gisondi, a substitute at Buena Regional, said Christie is “doing things that needed to be done years ago.”
“I don’t see a serious solution proposed by the other side,” said Gisondi, who is unaffiliated with either party.
One-hundred miles away in East Orange, N.J., the contrast between the campaigns of Christie and Buono is best seen.
Christie has just made his final two stops of the day — Nos. 6 and 7 — at a bakery in Atlantic City and at a school in Toms River.
Buono’s final stop comes at what’s described as an “East Orange Democrats campaign event.” But it’s actually a graduation ceremony for nursing assistant students, which seems to surprise Buono and catch her campaign off guard.
It also seems to surprise the students, who appear to have little idea who she is. When she is introduced to the room, she has to stand up before the crowd recognises her and applauds unenthusiastically.
Meanwhile, a couple hours earlier, Christie won over another registered Democrat in Atlantic City — Rosa Hernandez, who works in accounting at the Resorts Casino. On Tuesday, she’ll be one of the 20% to 30% of Democrats who supports him in New Jersey, according to recent polls. She could be one that follows him all the way to the White House.
“He has done so many good things,” Hernandez says. “I would support him if he runs for president.”
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